Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals orders full statutory signature verification procedures for Texas mail-in ballots, overturns district court ruling that would’ve eased anti-fraud measures

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Camp Street in downtown New Orleans.

New Orleans and Austin, October 21 – The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans ruled in favor of Texas Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs and ordered continuation of mail-in ballot integrity procedures under Texas law, despite an effort by the strongly-left-leaning League of Women Voters and others to reduce ballot integrity during the November 3, 2020, General Election. In the lawsuit, styled Doctor George Richardson; Rosalie Weisfeld; MOVE Texas Civic Fund; League of Women Voters of Texas; Austin Justice Coalition; Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Plaintiffs, versus Texas Secretary of State, Ruth R. Hughs, Defendant, the Court of Appeals overturned an injunction which a San Antonio district court had issued and allowed the November 3 Election to proceed in accordance with Texas election law.

Court of Appeals Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote the unanimous opinion for the Court of Appeals, which he explained as follows:

“The United States is a few days from the November 3, 2020, General Election. Texas officials are preparing for a dramatic increase of mail-in voting, driven by a global pandemic. One of their many pressing concerns is to ensure the integrity of the ballot by adhering to the state’s election-security procedures. And the importance of electoral vigilance rises with the increase in the number of mail-in ballots, a form of voting in which ‘the potential and reality of fraud is much greater . . . than with in-person voting…’ Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud . . .In a well-intentioned but sweeping order issued less than two months before the election, however, the district court minimizes Texas’s interest in preserving the integrity of its elections and takes it upon itself to rewrite the Legislature’s mail-in ballot signature-verification and voter-notification procedures. At a time when the need to ensure election security is at its zenith, the district court orders that, if the Secretary of State does not adopt its preferred procedures, election officials must stop altogether rejecting ballots with mismatched signatures. Because Texas’s strong interest in safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud far outweighs any burden the state’s voting procedures place on the right to vote, we stay the injunction pending appeal.

“To further its compelling interest in safeguarding the integrity of the election process, Texas conditions the vote-by-mail privilege on compliance with various safeguards. One of those, at issue here, is signature verification…

“The Early Voting Ballot Board (‘EVBB’) is responsible for processing the results of early voting. The Early Voting Clerk may appoint, in addition to the EVBB, a Signature Verification Committee (‘SVC’)…Upon receipt of the mail-in ballots, the Early Voting Clerk must timely deliver the ballots to the SVC or, if no SVC is appointed, to the EVBB…If no SVC is appointed, the EVBB receives and reviews each ballot to determine whether to accept it…Relevant here, the EVBB may accept a ballot ‘only if . . . neither the voter’s signature on the ballot application nor the signature on the carrier envelope certificate is determined to have been executed by a person other than the voter, unless signed by a witness . . . ‘ In making that determination, the EVBB compares the two signatures and ‘may also compare the signatures with any two or more signatures of the voter made within the preceding six years and on file with the county clerk or voter registrar…’ If the EVBB determines that a ballot is not acceptable— as a result of either the signature-verification procedure or another of [the Election Code]’s requirements—the ballot is rejected, and the vote is not counted.”

The plaintiffs challenged Texas’s absentee-ballot system in August 2019, suing the Secretary of State, Ruth Hughs; the Brazos County Elections Administrator, Trudy Hancock; and the City of McAllen’s Secretary, Perla Lara. The plaintiffs—a group comprised of two persons who had absentee ballots rejected in previous elections and organizations involved in voter registration, education, outreach, and support—raised several claims. They maintain that Texas’s signature-comparison and voter-notification procedures violate (1) the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, (2) the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, (3) the Americans with Disabilities Act, and (4) the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Court of Appeals rejected all of the plaintiffs’ arguments.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton commended the United States Court of Appeals for granting a stay that preserves the critical anti-fraud provisions in the Texas Election Code. The stay halts the district court order that demanded the Texas Secretary of State issue unlawful advisories directing local election officials to forego their duty to ensure that the voter who submits a mail-in ballot is the same person who applied to vote by mail. 

 “The Fifth Circuit correctly recognized that the district court’s order rewriting Texas election law on the eve of an election is impermissible. I commend the Fifth Circuit for putting on hold this unjustified injunction while our appeal plays out. I will continue to defend the integrity of Texas elections and combat voter fraud,” said Attorney General Paxton.  

 To prevent fraud, Texas election law generally requires all voters to vote by personal appearance at a polling place, with specific protections for distinct groups, such as the elderly or disabled, to cast their ballots by mail. Texans who wish to vote by mail must first submit an application for a mail-in ballot. If the application is approved, the voter must then mail the completed ballot along with a certificate signed by the voter certifying that the ballot is their own. Local officials are required to verify that the ballot was lawfully submitted by the voter by comparing signatures on the ballot and certificate and notify the voter if the ballot is not accepted.  




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